If you need a clue as to why large Sport Utility Vehicles are a key battleground among manufacturers, look at the sheer number of them on the market.
Despite trailing small and medium SUVs for sales, the large SUV category bustles with more models than the former groups.
Enter the seven-seat Hyundai Santa Fe. Three years after the fourth-generation model debuted in 2018, the Korean brand decided a superficial nip and tuck was not enough to catapult its large SUV contender to the sales lead.
For 2021, Hyundai gifted the Santa Fe a new platform to unlock more interior room. Although the length between the axles remains set at 2765mm, the body has grown 15mm, sits 10mm wider and stands 5mm taller.
Our test subject is the base Santa Fe equipped with a 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel engine. It also replaces the eight-speed automatic behind the petrol engine with an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission for faster gear shifting and better fuel economy.
Although a diesel engine attracts a $2500 premium, it remains the only way to option all-wheel drive. All right-hand-drive V6 versions are front-wheel drive.
The diesel engine delivers 440Nm of torque compared to 331Nm from the petrol engine but lacks power, with 148kW playing 220kW. For frugality, however, the diesel dominates at least the claimed figures, drinking only 6.1L/100km on the official combined cycle against 10.1L/100km for the petrol engine.
That means you should be able to extract around 1000km from a 67-litre tank of diesel that should cost about $95-$100 to fill up, depending on bowser prices. Service intervals are every 12 months for the first five years at $399 for each visit. Meanwhile, the Santa Fe comes with a five-year unlimited-kilometre warranty – which is standard among rivals.
The specifications list is relatively basic for something that costs $48,200 before on roads and comes in at just under $50,000 driveaway. For instance, the base Santa Fe misses out on gearshift paddles and Terrain Mode selector. They are instead available on the Active trim that costs another $3600.
What is a Terrain Mode selector? It allows the driver to select from either Snow, Mud and Sand drive modes that prime the engine torque, shift map, traction control and all-wheel drive bias for specialised environments.
And if you like going off-road, then you might want to know Santa Fe has a paltry 17.9-degree approach and 19.3-degree departure angle. And specific off-road technology includes 4WD lock, hill descent control, hill start assist control and downhill brake control.
Of course, the Santa Fe is more suited to an urban jungle than a real one and to that end it features an electronic parking brake, two-stage rear wiper and switchgear for audio, phone and cruise control functions on the steering wheel. Fancy rain-sensing wipers, push-button start and driver seat memory are instead saved for the Active trim.
The base Santa Fe looks nothing more than pragmatic with its 17-inch wheels, black-plastic body cladding and large rear reflector in the bumper that hides the rear muffler and exhaust tip behind panels.
It’s the same situation inside, where the base Santa Fe misses out on a futuristic-looking new centre console and updated gear-selection buttons, settling for a more traditional gear lever arrangement and drab looking panel for the single-zone climate control. Base and Active trims also score an eight-inch centre touchscreen instead of the 10.25-inch version on higher-spec versions.
Smartphone mirroring and wireless charging, a leather steering wheel and gear lever, one-touch window functionality, heated side mirrors and keyless central locking are all standard, though.
Active safety stacks up inside the base Santa Fe with blind-spot warning, driver attention warning, AEB, high-beam assist, lane following, lane keeping, rear cross-traffic alert and active cruise control all down as standard equipment. Also included are tyre pressure monitoring, park distance warning and a rearview camera with guidelines.
While this list of standard mod-cons compares well with a segment leader like the Toyota Kluger, these SUVs are purpose-built to swallow seven people in relative comfort. Hyundai claims the new larger body has unlocked more interior room, offering improved knee room in the second row for full-sized adults.
Of course, there’s the benefit of being able to recline the second-row seats or slide them forwards to give third-row passengers extra knee room. However, the third row would only suit children or adults who are only travelling a short distance.
Getting into the second row is done simply by pulling a switch down by the cushion on the outboard seats. Meanwhile, a strap on the back of the third row drops the two seats separately if needed. Rear comfort is good while cooling and heating feature on all rows. There is also an opportunity to adjust the fan speed in the third row.
Minimum cargo space with all three rows up is at 130L. That expands to 571L when the third row is folded flat and represents a 24 litre increase on the old Santa Fe. Fold the second row down at Hyundai says the boot can hold up to 1649L worth of cargo, or 25 litres more than before.
Underneath the flat floor – which makes for easy loading, and swallows an impressive amount of stuff – lies a full-size spare alloy wheel. Higher spec Santa Fe trims like the Elite and Highlander score a powered tailgate, while base cars make do with a manual one.
The first thing you notice after sitting inside is the excellent front seats with perforated inserts. Despite lacking power adjustment or any fancy massage function, the base-spec front seats are comfortable, supportive and cushioning, often leaving you rejuvenated after time in them. It’s the same deal for the second row.
They suit the cabin design that remains thoughtfully designed and familiar in layout for a Hyundai, placing the door handles up high and switches where you expect to find them. Forward visibility is excellent, with designers trying hard to open up the blind spot often behind a thick A-pillar base, wing mirror and ill-placed tweeter.
Our cabin carries over an eight-inch centre screen and a 4.2-inch digital screen plugged between the analogue cluster readouts. But to experience the new 10.25-inch centre touchscreen and redesigned 12.3-inch digital Supervision cluster requires the $57,800 Santa Fe Elite.
All up, a kerb weight of 1820kg makes the Santa Fe diesel 85kg heavier than the petrol variant. However, on the road, it barely feels laboured by its extra heft. The combination of grip, low-down torque and rapid gear shifts launches the Santa Fe with ease, while tight gear spacing bolsters acceleration up to highway speeds.
Hyundai has also tuned an excellent ride and handling package for the Santa Fe. It delivers a supple ride around town on comically large-sidewall Hankook tyres without hampering positive steering response, so it’s a nice thing to dart through traffic and take corners in.
It’s equally as comfortable out on the highway. The cabin is insulated well enough to allow easy conversation with passengers and the suspension wafts over undulations while remaining settled. The safety systems intervene with a Hyundai-typical soft touch, as well.
The lack of kit in the base trim Santa Fe puts a brighter spotlight on the versatility that lies at the core of these seven-seat SUVs. It can haul a family in comfort, swallow incredible amounts of stuff, cover kilometres with ease and handle the urban grind without a flinch.
While we didn’t get a chance to test either its all-wheel-drive system or towing ability – rated at 2500kg braked or 750kg unbraked, while its tow ball download rating has doubled to 200kg – they represent at least a nominal extension of its talents.
You’d struggle to match the Santa Fe among rivals at this price, with the Kluger lacking a diesel option and a lot of the Santa Fe’s modern conveniences, while the petrol Skoda Kodiaq 132 TSI is down on torque and power compared to the Santa Fe diesel.
One exception, however, is the Mazda CX-8. At $46,990 for the diesel all-wheel-drive Sport, it undercuts the base Santa Fe by at least $1000 with a more comprehensive equipment list with stuff like the digital radio or three-zone climate control instead of a wireless charging pad.
But for a fresh statement in the crowded SUV category, the Hyundai Santa Fe stands out for good reason.
Likes: Practicality, grunty performance, comfy seats, ride quality
Dislikes: It's slightly more expensive than the CX-8
Specifications: Hyundai Santa Fe
Body: 5-door, 7-seat SUV
Drive: all-wheel drive
Engine: 2151cc 4-cyl, 16v, turbo
Power: 148kW @ 3800rpm
Torque: 440Nm @ 1750-2750rpm
Fuel consumption: 6.1L/100km (combined cycle)
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch transmission
Suspension: struts, anti-roll bar, springs, dampers (f); multi-links, anti-roll bar, springs, dampers (r)
Brakes: 325mm ventilated discs, sliding caliper (f); 305mm solid discs, sliding caliper (r)
Tyres: 235/65 R17 108V (f/r)
Wheels: 17 x 7.0-inch (f/r)